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Sport-specific agility and quickness training for soccer

This is an excerpt from Developing Agility and Quickness 2nd Edition PDF by NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association & Jay Dawes.

Soccer is one of the most challenging sports for which to design an agility and quickness program because it consists of almost constant movement over two 45-minute periods. Given the amount of movement, agility becomes a central element in a soccer player's effectiveness. Training that improves this capacity has the ability to enhance soccer performance significantly, contributing to improvement in all elements of play.


A key factor in developing agility is that it is very context-specific. Although fundamental movement patterns do exist, the ultimate aim of training is to enable athletes to deploy these movements effectively in a game. To this end, it is useful to think of agility as game speed (not to be confused with linear speed). Game speed can be defined as a context-specific skill, in which athletes maximize their performance by applying sport-specific movements of optimal velocity, precision, efficiency, and control in anticipation of and in response to the key perceptual stimuli and skill requirements of the game.


This definition has a number of vital messages. The first is that movement requirements are specific to a given sport, often even to a given position. For example, a goalkeeper's movement requirements are different from those of a central midfielder. Secondly, effective game speed consists of an optimal velocity that should be judged not only by maximal velocity but also by its precision, control, and efficiency. These terms are essential in the context of soccer, where movements need to be maintained for a 90-minute period. Here, the ultimate aim of the game is to express soccer skills, rather than simply to move at maximal speed. Although maximal speed is an important variable, the ability to harness speed and agility is more important for maximizing soccer performance.


Since game speed and agility are context-specific, coaches must be able to break down the movement requirements of soccer to develop an effective program. Soccer movement is intermittent, with each game featuring between 1,200 and 1,400 changes of direction. These movements vary in speed and direction, with players changing directions about every 2 to 4 seconds. Typical sprinting activities span approximately 5 to 15 meters (5.5-16.4 yd) and occur once every 30 seconds on average. The majority of playing time is spent in transitional phases, where speeds vary from walking to high-speed running. These transitional movements occur in many directions, including forward, sideways, and backward. Sprinting activities can be performed straight ahead; however, they often include some COD at the outset of the sprint or at some point during the sprint.


Program Design

Given the vast range of movement requirements across 90 minutes of play, and the different requirements of playing positions, designing soccer-specific agility sessions may be daunting. However, by analyzing the target movement specifications of the sport, coaches can classify soccer movements and put them into a basic structure for building an effective agility program.


To break down soccer movements, it is helpful to determine what athletes are trying to achieve. Coaches can effectively carry this out using target classifications. At any given time, athletes are likely attempting either to start movement or to change the direction of movement (initiation movements), trying to move at maximal velocity (actualization movements), or waiting in transition to react to a soccer-specific stimulus (transition movements). Although agility training often focuses on initiation and actualization movements, far less emphasis is placed on transition movements. Often, when these movements are trained, they are taught incorrectly, with the emphasis on movement speed rather than on control. Athletes' ability to start and move at maximal velocity often depends on being in the correct position to enable effective subsequent movement.


Effective agility training balances the requirements of the exercise and the ability of the athlete. Thus, a session designed for an elite athlete should look different from a session for a beginner. For this reason, a soccer-specific agility program should include a progression in movement challenge and complexity as athletes move through their stages of development. In the initial stages, athletes can benefit from closed drills that allow the speed of the drills to be controlled and often consist of single movement patterns (e.g., shuffling). In this stage, coaches should develop athletes' ability in all of the identified movement patterns for soccer to ensure that there are no weak links in movement ability. The following list provides the system for game-speed development, which shows stages of movement ability and application. As athletes maintain proper movement patterns at one stage, they can progress to the next level.

  1. Develop general and stable fundamental movement patterns.
  2. Develop key movement combinations, moving from closed to open drills.
  3. Develop sport-specific movements in game context.
  4. Perform sport-specific movements in game context.

As athletes develop, coaches should start to combine movement patterns in ways typical to soccer. For example, backpedal drills can conclude with sprints to the rear, to the side, or forward. These combinations are commonly seen in soccer. As athletes develop, coaches can also deploy drills that are increasingly open. Here, athletes should respond to a range of stimuli, which can become increasingly soccer-specific. For example, athletes can initiate incorporating backpedaling into a sprint drill. Next, athletes can perform a drill where they change direction in response to a coach's signal, and then in response to another athlete's movement. In this way, the movement patterns become increasingly more challenging in a way that progressively reflects the specific movement patterns found in soccer. These types of drills can include great variety in terms of distances, speeds, directions, and stimuli.